Yes, this is indeed a post about sponges. And paper towels. And consumption. Contain yourselves.
Sponges are a mundane topic, but we hope it serves as a noncontroversial model for thinking about the life cycle of what you buy, from production through useful life to disposition, because it’s both good for the planet and good for you and your family’s health. We will discuss what average sponges are made of (like this and this), and eco-friendly alternatives, but again, here are the themes we are touching upon through the lens of sponges:
- Consider the materials in what you buy and the process by which it was made: Are they sustainable? Sometimes it’s hard to tell, but is it made mostly of oil and plastic? Is there an alternative made locally that doesn’t require the shipping footprint?
- Consider the durability and utility of what you buy: The less durable it is, the more you’ll buy, the greater the manufacturing, raw materials, packaging, and shipping footprint.
- Consider where it ends up at the end of its life: Is it being relegated to landfill, or is it compostable or recyclable? This ties closely with #1.
On to sponges…
- Made from polyurethane, acrylic, or polyester, all petrochemical derivatives.
- Not recyclable, at least not in blue bins, the way most of us think about recycling, i.e., ends up in landfills. (check this for an exhilarating read).
- May contain anti-bacterial chemicals, like Triclosan, which are terrible for the planet (as they devastate aquatic life), and for your health (as they kill good bacteria, like that found in your gut, and have a range of other issues). If the packaging reads “anti-bacterial,” generally stay away.
- Packaged in plastic, which simply seems unnecessary.
It’s worth mentioning, given their prevalence, that the blue Scotch-Brite sponges, at least the sponge side, are made of cellulose, a wood derivative, which CAN BE sustainable. However, we can’t trace the origin of the the scrubby side (technical term), so we can’t recommend it. Additionally, those blue sponges seep blue dye, which we also can’t trace, so we skip them. To be fair, Scotch-Brite does have its “greener clean” line of products, but even these have a scrubby side made of 50% polyester (the other 50% is agave fiber), so while they’re better, they aren’t great.
Better Sponges (highlighting just a few)
- Twist: We verified with the company that these products are compostable. They make a variety of items, from basic cellulose sponges to loofah based dish scrubbies. No dyes or synthetic glues, and the scrubby side of the sponge is sewn onto the sponge which means that it can be composted (i.e., put in the green bin) rather than end up in the landfill for the next 52,000 years (by some estimates). Available @ Amazon and Target. We use these.
- Pura Naturals: While we can’t verify that these are compostable, they do claim to have a carbon negative footprint. They are plant based (no petroleum byproducts) and the scrubby is made from walnut shells and isn’t attached with glue. Some of the sponges come impregnated with a soap which is biodegradable. These sponges are also naturally bacteria resistant as they repel water. Available @ Amazon and Target. Made in the USA.
- Skoy: Both their cloths and their scrubbies are compostable (made from cellulose and cotton) and can be cleaned in the microwave, clothes washer, or dishwasher. Available @ Amazon.
Furthermore, if you are an avid paper towel user, consider switching to sponges and reusable cloths. We appreciate that paper towels are convenient, but here a just a few issues with paper towels:
- Frequently end up in landfills since the quality of fiber in them is usually pretty poor and often can’t be recycled. On average, an American uses 40-45 pounds of paper towels per year. ~35% of landfill waste (by weight) is paper towels. Even the compostability of white paper towels is questionable given the bleach and dioxins used to get them white (keep reading).
- Contribute significantly to pollution. 20% of toxic chemicals released into the air come from the pulp & paper industry per the EPA. (We could not determine what proportion of that was specifically due to paper towels however.) For sake of brevity, we will skip water and soil pollution.
- They are bleached. It is unclear if the bleaching chemicals can seep into your body over time, but given the dioxins and potential issues, we elect to skip them.
- Cost you more than using reusable cloths: somewhere in the range of an extra $500 to $1,300 over 5 years.
If you are insistent on using paper towels, consider:
- Non-bleached ones, made with 100% recycled materials, ideally with a high percentage from post consumer waste. Seventh Generation has these (though to be clear, reusable cloths and sponges still win).
- Cutting them in halves or quarters, unless of course you really do need a full one.
Back to sponges.
Keeping it Clean
Like we said, skip the Triclosan. It’s bad for you, your family, and the planet. Instead, microwaving a sponge for one minute or placing it in the dishwasher with a drying cycle will kill over 99.99% of the bacteria in a sponge, allowing that sponge to have a longer, more useful life sans toxins. Check this reference. Just make sure to wet the sponge before microwaving, because a burnt sponge is a lot less useful.
We have no delusions that changing sponge brands will materially alter what is happening to the earth. However, if we start to think about all of our purchases, from disposable to durable goods, in a manner that considers how and with what inputs our products are made, their durability, and how they will be disposed at end of life, we can collectively have a real impact. Better yet, ask yourself if you really do need to make the purchase at all.
We hope you will share this post, and we welcome your comments. We can be reached at EcoLuxSF@gmail.com.
Thanks for reading EcoLuxSF.
Sheila & Avnish